lundi 12 décembre 2011

Riding racehorses

On Strictly Rhythm

Saturday morning at Gina's yards in Maisons-Laffitte was one of those moments when you stop and realize not how far you have to go still, but how far you have come. In so many ways. But it is like that, when everything is a way to everything else.

Two years ago last July, my stepdaughter got on a pony for the first time, a Shetland, like all the kids do to start. Saturday, she mounted Strictly Rhythm, a 3-year-old thoroughbred racehorse, a filly by Hawk Wing and Esteemed Lady out of Mark of Esteem, who has placed in 7 of her 13 races over these two years. For the last year and more, she has been riding double ponies and jumping 60-70cm, although she has jumped more on occasion. In her two and a half years riding, she has gone from beginner to working toward her Galop 5. There are 9 altogether. To give you an idea, at Galop 5, you can join the mounted division of the gendarmes or the police. At Galop 7, you may qualify to teach, if I am not mistaken.

For anyone who doesn't ride and who may be excused for not realizing this, she has already progressed very rapidly, but to go from a double pony in a pony club, even a really good one, to a thoroughbred racehorse is like going from a Deux Chevaux to a Ferrari; you don't just show up at a trainer's yards and hop up into the saddle, and it's not for everyone. Nor do you earn your opportunity by mucking stables and greasing tack; you have to find a way to show the trainer that there is an excellent chance you can handle the horse, and yourself. First, there's the danger to you. Then, and very possibly more important to the trainer, there's the possibility of injury for the horse, a horse who earns money running, not recovering in its box.

For my stepdaughter, or ma belle-fille (it's so much nicer in French), the wait was relatively painlessly short and the way smoothed by a bit of good fortune. Gina was going to the farm in Normandy, the farm where Strictly Rhythm was vacationing, to hand a horse she was retiring over to her new owner, and we just happen to live a few kilometers from the highway to Orbec. Gina and I made an appointment to meet near the exit ramp of the highway, and we headed to la ferme de Madame Guibert, stopping along the way for Gina's usual "service station lunch".

It was only when we arrived near the farm at precisely the appointed hour and Gina called the girl to guide her the rest of the way, figuring she had to be nearly there and about to get lost, that we discovered that they were nowhere near. Her parents had hired a horse transport service, she and the driver had driven across half la France, and the driver had just stopped well over an hour away in Gaillon, at the appointed hour to meet in Orbec, for lunch, or to casser la croute.

"Je vais juste casser la croute," he said to Gina, perfectly nonplussed, "et puis on reprendra la route."

This is France. Nothing gets in the way of lunch, at lunchtime.

Just casser la croute and drive more than an hour and a half? It was 1 pm. They wouldn't be there for another 2 or 3 hours, and Gina was due back at 5:30 pm for evening stable. Seven horses would be waiting for her, so what the hell did he think he was doing, stopping for lunch an hour and a half away at the very hour they were supposed to be there? But there was more. The girl said that truck wasn't equipped for a horse. It was a stock transport truck.
"Stock?" Gina said. "Mais on parle d'un pur sang qui vient de terminer son entrainement de course!" A thoroughbred racehorse, who had just come off training. "Je ne peux pas le mettre dans un camion de stock."

The girl was in tears, stuck heaven's knew where for lunch with a driver who had just learned his empty truck would be turning around and driving back across France to somewhere nearly in Germany. I was imagining her sitting next to him in that cab for seven hours. Seven alternately silent and grumbling hours.

"Don't worry too much," said Gina, "kids today know better than ever before how to distance themselves. They all have iPods."

I imagined her slumped against the passenger door, pretending to sleep, music in her ears. It would have taken a lot more than an iPod for me to survive that at 18, even at well over 18, but we went to see Strictly Rhythm in her box and then out to see Clare, who is in foal, and we got back well ahead of time for me to go get my belle-fille from the pony club. Time enough, it turned out, for Gina to come up with me and see the place and say she'd like to see her ride right as Julie, the director, was walking by, said "Bien sur", and told my belle-fille to go get a helmet from the tack room. There was a lesson in the covered manege, and she could get on any of the ponies.

Well, you'd have thought she'd have jumped, squealing for joy, at the occasion, but that wasn't quite the way it went. I was ready to tan her hide; Julie ordered her; and, the girls in the lesson started to call to her to get herself in there and on a pony tout de suite. Here she wanted, hoped to ride for Gina, and she was dragging her heels. I was puzzled. I was vexed. Gina and I stood in the tribune next to Julie, and there she was trudging across the manege as though to the gallows, when a friend jumped off a pony and handed her the reins. She mounted. Gina watched, and she and Julie exchanged observations.

"Elle n'a pas la force de monter un pur sang cheval de course," said Julie. She doesn't have the strength to ride a thoroughbred racehorse.

"Il ne faux pas de la force, mais la main douce." You don't need strength, said Gina, but soft hands.

"Elle a la main vraiment douce," allowed Julie. She has very soft hands.

"Une plume comme cela pourrait être très utile," said Gina, watching all 38 kg of my feather of a belle-fille ride around the manege. "Ca va! C'est bien," she called out to her.

She'd ride for Gina, eventually, but it couldn't have turned out more perfectly. Alexandra might not have had her new mare in the truck on the way back across France, but my belle-fille had gotten a serendipitous audition.

Alone, later that evening, she looked at me and said, "Tu sais, j'ai monté le poney le plus facile."

"C'est pas grave, mais pourquoi tu as fais ça?"

"Parce qu'Alice avait besoin de faire pipi, alors j'ai pris Gladys. Et elle m'a dit que je suis folle; elle aurait sauté sur l'occasion de monter pour quelqu'un comme Gina pour la chance de montrer ce qu'elle sait faire."

I shook my head. Alice has more sense in hers. She probably made up the excuse of needing to run to the bathroom to get my belle-fille up on a pony as fast as humanly possible, and, was she crazy? She, she told my belle-fille, would have jumped at the chance to ride for someone like Gina and show her what she could do, all for a chance to ride thoroughbreds.

But, if soft hands are enough, it also takes assurance, maturity and confidence, but one way to develop all of that, and in spades, is to get up on that horse with blood and ride it, and Gina decided last week that Saturday would be the day. She asked me not to tell her, and we all kept the secret, the happiest of secrets to keep. My husband, too. I hoped it wouldn't give it away, asking her if she had her helmet and chaps leaving the house, but, I reminded myself, I have asked her the past three Saturday pre-dawn mornings.

At breakfast, she was willing to eat a scrambled egg with her cereal without milk.

"J'ai fais un rêve ce matin," she said.

"Un mauvais ou un bon?"

She had been in a miserable mood when I woke her up, smothered in the heat from the electric heater she'd turned up and left on full-blast, and she'd fallen back to sleep and then brought me up short for "interrogating" her upon awakening, for the second time in a half hour, when I asked her a question. Chastised, I had left her room again, hoping for the best on the morning she was to ride for the first time. I suspected a bad dream.

"Mauvais à la fin, mais j'ai rêvé que Gina m'a tendu Hard Way, et j'ai été sur lui, et il y avait beaucoup de monde. Lisa était là sur Vedette."

I smiled. She had dreamed that Gina handed her Hard Way, her favorite in Gina's yards, to ride, and there were many people there watching. Lisa, her friend from the pony club, was on Vedette, the Welsh pony she has begun to ride in competition. She didn't mention the bad end.

"C'est drôle les rêves," I replied, "Quelques fois on rêve le futur, son destin, l'où on va et ce qu'on veut. Toi, tu vas vers les purs sangs de courses, et tes amies sont toujours montées en poney."

She returned to her eggs and orange juice, and we headed out the door to her future, come as quickly as she could dream it. We cleaned boxes like every Saturday, and she brushed horses and greased hooves to get them ready to saddle; spread fresh straw; fetched hay and clean water, and then Gina came up to us where we stood near Hard Way, about to go out for his exercise.

"Ce matin, j'ai besoin de ton aide. Tu vas monter. Pas Hard Way. Il met son poids dans les mains, mais tu monteras Strictly Rhythm. Elle est gentille. Ca te vas?"

My eyes didn't leave my belle-fille's face. I wanted for all the world to have my camera in hand the moment Gina told her, but it would have been a dead give-away. Instead, I watched her. Her eyes opened wide and softened, she continued breathing, but a smile started to trace its way across her left cheek. She nodded.

"Tu as tes chaps et ta bombe, oui?" She nodded again. "OK, vas te préparer."

She headed into the tack room for her stuff, and I heard her call out to me, "Tu le savais, n'est-ce pas?" You knew, didn't you?


"Tu mens super mal!"

Gina looked at me over Hard Way and raised an eyebrow.

"Je n'ai pas menti! Comment j'ai pu mentir quand je n'ai rien dit?"

But, she didn't mean that I had lied before, of course. She meant I couldn't lie right then, about not having known, when there was no way I could hide the pleasure I took in being caught out, or the pleasure I took in watching her step up into the saddle.

"Tu es fière d'elle," I heard Thierry, one of the owners who lends a hand around the yard, say. Looking over, I saw him smiling from ear to ear. He's a father. I turned and glanced at the young woman from the International Racing Board, who had come out to see Maisons-Laffitte, and who had been riding her parents' race horses in England -- in her Wellies, no less -- "forever".

"Je suis heureuse," I said, turning to Thierry, and returning his smile, watching his eyes turn back to Capucine across the yards, "Heureuse qu'elle ait eu cette chance."

The young woman smiled, and we all turned back to watch her ride away out beyond the stables and out the gate with Gina.

"It went well, I think," said Gina while we were finishing up.

Later, in the car, I interrogated her for real, and she cooperated this time.

"Alors, qu'est-ce que vous avez fait?"

We rode into the park at a walk, and we trotted, and then Strictly Rhythm broke into a little canter, and Gina said she was trying to wake me up, and then we cantered, and she got away from me.

I knew that. She had already told me. When I asked her if she had gotten her back under control, she'd flipped at me, cool as a cucumber, "Well, I wouldn't be here if I hadn't, would I?" Cheek. So, it was good for her.

"Alors, dis-moi. Comment l'as-tu rattrapée?"

I pulled my shoulders back and stuck my feet out forward, toes straight up, like Gina told me, and I remembered, just in time, to lower the reins to the neck, like Gina always says you must. Never raise the reins, they'll go faster! Gina laughed. 

Phew, I thought.

I didn't ask if she wanted to ride again. That wasn't necessary to ask, but next Saturday, it might be off to the races at Deauville to see 2-year-old Surrey Storm, a Montjeu filly, run her first race in France, if she doesn't get eliminated. She has run four times in England and placed in three of those outings, two third places and a fourth, finishing at worst in eighth place. I might even put a fiver on her if she goes.


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